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As the Wine Turns

The problem might be a tainted cork

Drinking wine is one of the most sensual activities a person can enjoy in public, but a glass of wine is no guarantee of great pleasure to come. Every now and then, you open a bottle you selected because Wine Spectator gave it a 98, only to discover that the wine smells like stewed bottom feeder, steel mill fumes, or anything in between. Such wines are said to be “off” bottles. It’s an all-encompassing term, but it sometimes means the bottle has succumbed to that most insidious of wine maladies, “corkiness.”

True corkiness is distinctive, resulting in wines described as “musty” or “damp cardboard” to the nose, and showing muted flavor. Scientists say corkiness is caused by a specific highly volatile contaminant, 2,4,6-TCA (raise your hand if you were pre-med). Supposedly, the most minuscule amount of TCA on a single cork can infect, to varying degrees, all of the corks in a bag of a few thousand. Once inside otherwise healthy bottles of wine, these corks will damage the contents—again, to varying degrees.

Yes, unlike pregnancy, there are degrees of corkiness. This may be why estimates for the percentage of wines affected by cork taint are all over the map, from one percent (cork industry) to fifteen percent (Tony Randall?). I, a wine importer with perfect objectivity, would put the figure on the lower end—say, five percent.

To complicate matters, flawed wines are often thought to be corky when the true culprit is something else: a hot warehouse, a dirty barrel, a contaminated bottling line, or any number of technical problems. Sometimes, even sound wines are called corky by drinkers who simply don’t recognize the aroma of a healthy but unusual wine. This is most common in cases of non-aromatic varieties such as chenin blanc or trebbiano, because there is little varietal aroma interfering with the wine’s “secondary” aromatics. Frequently, the cause of an off aroma is a glass that has been “washed” with old dishwater (this happens often in restaurants) or fouled by the varnish fumes of a kitchen cabinet.

How is one to know whether an unsatisfying wine has been ruined by its cork or by some other culprit? My advice is simple. Don’t spend time thinking about it. Just get that bad bottle off of the table and open another. React as you would to a stinky piece of fish—it doesn’t matter why it is stinky; you are not going to eat it.

You can, of course, avoid corkiness by avoiding cork. The advantage of natural cork is primarily aesthetic. Some claim that wines bottled with natural cork age more gracefully than other wines, but there is little evidence to support this, and, besides, only a small percentage of wines are intended to age more than a year or two.

Today, there are several alternatives to natural cork. Synthetic corks are widely used, though I have not found them to be reliable in general, as some are hard to extract from the bottle, and others seem not to seal perfectly. A better choice is the Stelvin enclosure, or screw cap. Once viewed as too industrial for fine wine, these enclosures are now widely accepted. They’re easy to open, and the wine will not be corky.

The most exciting advance in years is the Vino-Lok glass cork. Vino-Lok corks are very attractive (some would even say sexy), and they maintain a perfect seal, with a glass-on-glass inner spiral. Even though it costs as much as the finest natural corks—the sort used for the most expensive wines—this solution is catching on among progressive winemakers, including Cusumano (Sicily), Puiatti (Friuli), and the Austrian labels Stadt Krems (Kremstal) and Heinrich (Burgenland).

But don’t worry if your favorite wines uses natural cork. Keep a backup bottle on hand, and factor the small extra cost into your overall wine budget. If five percent of bottles have cork taint, the $10 bottle of wine you buy truly costs you about $10.50. No big deal. After all, when you buy a pound of apples, you are also paying for the cores, not just the fruit.

SETH ALLEN, A81, this issue’s Connoisseur, is founder and CEO of Vin Divino (Chicago), named Importer of the Year by Food & Wine for its pioneering work with Austrian wine, and a Wine Hero by the Wine Advocate. He admits that sometimes he just wants a good beer.

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